A memorial fund has been established for Wayne Smith, the 40-year-old father of six from East Germantown who was killed Tuesday while trying to load an abandoned vehicle onto his tow truck during the city's massive car cleanup. Smith was killed on the second day of Mayor Street's 40-day, 40,000-car blitz. - The Inquirer, April 6, 2000
Jonnu Smith was the youngest of those six children. He was almost four months shy of his fifth birthday on April 4, 2000, when his mother sat him down to explain what happened.
Mayor John Street started a new program to rid the city streets of abandoned cars. Wayne Smith tried to maneuver a Lincoln onto the truck. It was his favorite car. The Lincoln slid off the truck and crushed him, leaving Karen Smith to raise six children on her own in Germantown and Jonnu Smith to grow up without a father.
"I was too young to understand it," Smith said. "But she kept me happy. She was my rock. She was my mother and father."
Seventeen years later, Smith is one top 10 tight ends eligible for the draft next week in his hometown. He's expected to go in a middle round. His information when Smith is drafted might say he's from Ocala, Fla., where he attended high school before starring at Florida International. That's where his life was saved, but it's not where he's from. He's from Chelten Avenue.
"I carry myself like I'm a Philly guy," Smith said. "It's still in my blood."
Smith started high school at New Media Technology Charter, a Northwest Philadelphia school that has since closed. He would have played football for Martin Luther King after playing youth football for the Northwest Raiders and telling his mother he would turn football into a career.
At the time, he didn't grasp the challenges a mother faces raising six children and working two jobs while trying to avoid what could happen if he wasn't in school and wasn't at home.
"She was so strong that she never showed it, when she had to raise all of us, we just had to laugh and joke, even though we didn't know how bad she was struggling," Smith said.
Karen Smith wanted her youngest child to move away. Smith's brother was arrested. One of Smith's friends was killed. Karen kept her son in the house, away from trouble and almost "punishing him for what was happening in society." Her sister and brother-in-law, Darla and Mike Kirkland, lived in Ocala. She decided to send Smith to live with them.
"It was too much," Karen said. "I had to get Jonnu out of that area. I didn't have the financial means to just uproot, or I would have done that. . . . It was hard to do, but I knew it was the best decision for him, for his life,"
Smith missed his family and his friends, but acknowledged it was the right decision to leave. His mother watched some of his Philadelphia friends get killed or go to prison. Smith, a spiritual child who avoided trouble and was popular among his teachers, doesn't try to imagine where he would be if he stayed.
"I'm here today because [the Kirklands] took me in and treated me like their own," Smith said.
Smith started playing high school football in Florida, although he was far from a touted recruit. He signed with Florida International, where he started as a freshman and turned into one of the nation's top tight ends. He led all tight ends in receiving stats as a sophomore before his production declined in 2015 because of an injury. His college career was halted last Halloween in an incident that shows up in any Google search about him.
Smith's girlfriend, who was five months pregnant, poured boiling water on Smith during an argument. He suffered burns on his head, neck, back, one shoulder and an arm. She was charged with aggravated battery. He missed the remainder of his senior season before returning for the Senior Bowl, where he answered questions from scouts and coaches about what happened.
"It was nothing I could control," Smith said. "I moved on from it. It didn't affect my game. . . . [I'm] fully healthy."
Smith, 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds, ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash during the scouting combine and impressed scouts with his athletic testing. He will hear his name called next week in the city he considers home but needed to leave.
Seventeen years after a story ran in the Inquirer about his father's death, Smith's name will be listed among the players drafted.
"You cannot let the environment shape you," Karen Smith said. "I know it's hard for a lot of these kids. I've watched it. . . . I just hope Jonnu's story, he can be that person who can help someone else in the mind and in their heart."